Complicity and Complacency in Occupied Palestine

May 8, 2014

By Dena Qaddumi

A little over a year ago I was in the midst of packing to move to Bethlehem in order to coordinate the program ‘Campus in Camps’ for Al Quds-Bard, a partnership between Al Quds University and Bard College. The decision to move and change jobs was one that required little deliberation; as a Palestinian in the diaspora, the opportunity to live and work in Palestine is one that not many of us have the privilege of fulfilling.  As an American citizen I had held this privilege.

However, my time in Palestine was not to last. My employer, Al Quds-Bard, would put me in a legally compromising position through causing me to overstay my visa unknowingly.  Until today, I have not received a proper explanation for why this happened and no one has been held accountable.  Predictably, when I tried to enter Palestine again, I was held at Allenby Bridge for 8 hours, questioned extensively, and denied entry.  Six months after I had moved to Palestine, I found myself banned from my homeland indeterminately.

While my experience is but one of many, I believe that it illuminates the many layers of complicity and complacency in the structures of occupation in Palestine. I hope that my account encourages others to publicly discuss their own.

Working in the West Bank

As Israel controls all West Bank borders, it also grants visas to all visitors, whether for the purpose of employment or tourism. However, work visas do not exist in the West Bank, thus there is no legal mechanism for a Palestinian institution to hire international staff. This reality has been particularly crippling for institutes of higher education, as detailed by the Right to Enter.

To overcome this bureaucratic hurdle, Palestinian institutions that have the support of foreign governments often apply for one-year multi-entry tourist visas for their international staff. The supporting government liaises with the Israeli authorities to grant the visa on the verbal understanding that these employees are necessary.  The Israeli government thus tacitly approves working in the West Bank on a tourist visa. Yet obtaining this visa is no guarantee that one can remain in the West Bank, as evidenced by the case of Palestinian-American Nour Joudah in January 2013, who was denied entry despite holding such a visa.

I was thus forced in an impossible situation- my American citizenship afforded no recourse with the US government, my Palestinian origins considered hostile to the Israeli government.

The Expiration of my Visa

When I was interviewed for the position at Campus in Camps, the director of the program explained the above process and said that the university would apply for a visa on my behalf, as an American institution, Bard College, supported the program. I was told that the US government would facilitate this process. Upon arriving on a 3-month tourist visa, I submitted the appropriate paperwork to the responsible Al Quds-Bard staff member. I was told explicitly that my visa would expire while this process was underway and that I should not worry, as this was normal.

However, inexplicably, after my visa had been expired for a week, I was informed that my visa application had never been put forth. An internal decision at Al Quds-Bard had determined that I was not eligible for the extended visa. I had never been informed of this decision prior to my visa expiring.

In the days that followed I tried to obtain answers as to how and why this happened. However, no one would offer an explanation, or accept responsibility for rectifying the situation. Bard senior staff were relatively dismissive of my situation, only stating that USAID procedures had changed, whereby only those working in a specific program could obtain visas. (This was the first time I was made aware that USAID was involved in this process.) Multiple Al Quds University staff were equally elusive; one even revealed that she had needed more information on my connections to Palestinians in order to process my application.  The original staff member who had handled my application, someone who was a colleague and who I had hosted on numerous occasions in my home, has not responded to my requests for clarification.

Only through appeals from my family to senior staff at Al Quds University was pressure exerted on Bard for clearer answers and action.  Bard finally revealed that, in April 2013, USAID had audited who was able to obtain one-year multi-entry visas. I was told that USAID had reprimanded Bard for obtaining visas for staff not directly connected to the USAID sponsored program. Finally, after pressure from Al Quds University, Bard arranged a meeting with senior USAID staff. I was told that USAID refused to be involved or even help me obtain a short-term visa so I could leave the country legally.

In parallel, I had contacted the US Consulate in Jerusalem, whose only advice was that I should visit the Israeli Ministry of Interior. I did this but was informed that I must leave the country; there was nothing I could do before leaving to make myself legal.

I was thus forced in an impossible situation – my American citizenship afforded no recourse with the US government, my Palestinian origins considered hostile to the Israeli government.

After weeks of trying to fix my situation to no avail, I left Palestine 4 months after I had arrived, not knowing if I would be able to return. I spent my last days packing up my apartment and left instructions with friends as to how to deal with my personal affairs. Two months later I would be denied entry.

A Culture of Irresponsibility and Unaccountability

After recounting this story to various colleagues and friends in the past months, I have been told repeatedly of similar cases. Of course, the effects of the development industry post-Oslo have been devastating in Palestine and are well known. They have provided both a cover for Israeli humanitarian obligations as well as created a class of Palestinians who have effectively benefitted from this reality. Thus, between the Israelis, international institutions, and the Palestinian elite there exists a web of complacency and complicity in the structures of occupation.

Instead of the full support of my employer, Al Quds-Bard, I was faced with a complete evasion of responsibility, and even disrespect. It was me that did not understand the constraints of occupation and did not appreciate the difficulties of operating in Palestine. One Bard staff member even had the audacity to compare my situation to his inability to acquire a visa to visit Russia for work. It was completely lost on him that a Palestinian illegally in Palestine had far more serious consequences. Further, the Bard liaison with USAID, an Israeli, personally assured me that he would directly speak to the Israeli Ministry of Interior. He said he would visit the Ministry and explain to them that I was not interested in “blowing anything up”.  Later when I followed up with him, he explained he was busy and would see what he could do.

Even the director of my program, the person who had inadvertently placed me in this situation, cancelled my job a month after I had left Palestine. I was given one day’s notice. Effectively, he had absolved himself and the university of any responsibility for resolving my legal status. I was accused of abandoning my job and only being interested in a visa.

I contacted senior administrators at Al Quds University, and made them aware that I was eventually denied entry and that my job was terminated. Though apologetic, their response was completely inadequate. They refused to properly acknowledge what happened, hold anyone accountable, address the illegal termination of my contract, or even aid me in acquiring legal assistance to deal with the Israelis. Rather, the Dean of Al Quds-Bard hinted that my contract was invalid and advised that I not speak about this matter publicly, as it could impact my ability to visit Palestine in the future.

as Palestinians, to excuse our responsibility on account of occupation is a dangerous and perverse trajectory. It suggests that we have no agency; our actions are completely beholden to Israeli control.

What has been consistent in all of my communications with Bard, Al Quds University and the director of Campus in Camps, has been complacency to blame the occupation for internal irresponsibility and complicity with those structures that sustain corruption and dishonesty. That these are the individuals and institutions driving Palestinian higher education is a serious cause for concern.

Agency Under Occupation?

Of course, as a Palestinian, Israel denies me the right to live in Palestine, where my father was born and raised and where my family has lived for generations. My own family name is derived from our village, Kafr Qaddum, but my ancestral connection to that place affords me no right to live there. Rather, Israel treats this history as a hindrance.  But this is a known fact and, indeed, is the core of the Palestinian struggle.

So what should I take away from this experience? How do I respond to it?  I have been asking myself these questions as I have reflected on both my own actions and the situation in Palestine broadly. Importantly, as a Palestinian in the diaspora, how am I complicit in this reality?

My personal experience is but an inkling of the daily life of Palestinians living under Israeli control. I briefly suffered that sensation that so many are all too familiar with, that no matter which way you turn you will slam into a brick wall; conceptually, a hellish blend of Kafka and Escher. However, as Palestinians, to excuse our responsibility on account of occupation is a dangerous and perverse trajectory. It suggests that we have no agency; our actions are completely beholden to Israeli control.

Tellingly, it was this line was a constant in all my exchanges with those involved in my experience, as if everything would be resolved once the occupation ended. In the meantime, one must be resigned to the status quo.

Surely we have much more to offer than this.  Indeed, we must.


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